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Chris Wright on Missional Definitions

June 26, 2007

In his soon-to-be-standard on a biblical theology of mission, The Mission of God, Chris Wright helpfully clears the fog surrounding kitsch missional terminology by providing some very clear definitions for mission, missional, missionary. Anyone remotely interested in being missional would benefit greatly by paying attention to Wright’s lucid distinctions.

My recent article on the missional movement attempts to deal with some of the thin-blooded and misconstrued conceptions of what mission, missional, and missionary mean. Wright pegs the meaning of these words with theological acumen and missiological precision with everyday language:

Mission: Our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation.


Missionary: referring to people who engage in mission, usually in a culture other than their own. It has even more of a flavor of “being sent” than the word mission itself…the term missionary still evokes images of white, Western expatriates among “natives”…[we] ought to know that already the majority of those engaged in crosscultural mission are not Western at all.


Missional: Missional is simply an adjective denoting something that is related to or characterized by mission…missional is to the word mission what covenantal is to covenant, or fictional to fiction. We might say that Israel had a missional role in the midst of the nations–implying that they had an identity and role connected to God’s ultimate intention of blessing the nations.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2007 10:10 am

    You’ve whet my appetite to dig into Wright’s book. It’s been staring me down across my desk , on my bookshelf.

    These are helpful definitions.

    Question for you:
    Do you distinguish missionaries as God’s people on God’s mission in a foreign culture?

    Or do you see and communicate that ALL Christians are missionaries; it’s just that they’re either obedient or disobedient, effective or ineffective?

  2. June 27, 2007 1:56 pm

    Great question, Josh. Though we are all called to missional work, and the lines of domestic and foreign missions are being erased by the serial globalization of Christianity, I do believe that a priority should be given to Unreached and Least reached peoples. Traditionally, missionaries have been those kind of risk-taking, culture-engaging, language-learning people.

    PErhaps we dont have to restrict the word missionary in order to advance prioritization in missions, but I am disinclined to think of myself as a missionary in Austin, Texas. Though it is 85% unchurched, there remains a religious capital in the entire US that permeates our culture, from government to library discussion groups.

    What do you think?

  3. June 27, 2007 5:39 pm

    Until recently, I disliked using the term ‘missionary’ for anyone not doing cross-cultural ministry. I felt that to do so belittled the massive task of contextualizing the gospel,disciplemaking, and the church planting process. When one rightly thinks of missions, one has in mind a much larger picture than just evangelism.

    But in the past, when I’ve seen churches try to motivate their members to be missionaries Stateside, it is usually reduced to the evangelistic activity.

    If I follow the basic definition of mission and missionary, esp. as Wright lays out here, I am given more confidence that anyone who lives on God’s mission (no matter the culture) is in fact a missionary. And since every Christian is supposed to be living on God’s mission then its in our DNA.

    However, then the term becomes synonymous with ‘Christian’ and becomes nearly meaningless.

    That all said, I’m still in progress.

  4. June 27, 2007 8:13 pm

    I agree that following Wrights definition, we can all be missionaries, but in doing so, do we minimize the great risks and tasks of cross-cultural missions, where men and women of God leave a familiar language and culture, and in highly Christlike fashion, lovingly and learningly devote themselves to another language, people and culture? I am not advocating an elitist status for cc missionaries, but do think we should recognize their great sacrifices in exemplary, Christ-imitating faith to pioneer the advance of the gospel.

    Scripture tells us to hold in high regard those who risk their lives for Christ…which is not exclusively a missionary phenomenon, but often fits the case.

    What do we gain by calling everyone missionaries? I guess it calls every xn to a more missional lifestyle, a persevering, culture-engaging, people-loving discipleship.

    last thought, does calling all xns undermine the mobilization of self-sacrificing, cross-cultural missionaries to advance the great commission and apostolic ministry of the gospel?

  5. June 29, 2007 8:36 am

    Good. You’ve framed the question/debate in a helpful way. We’ve both said that “missionary” can be and is being applied to non cross-cultural missionaries, therefore to all Xns. So that leaves us with What is Gained and What is Lost by broadening the term to include all Christians who redemptively engage culture for the purpose of fulfilling God’s redemption plan among the lost, whether resistant, unreached, “seekers”, or “churched-but-still-lost.”

    Since this is not a biblical debate, it comes down to personal evaluation.

    I think you can have your cake and eat, too. Here’s how. When we call all Xns ‘missionaries’ we must say that, just like cross-cultural missionaries, there are good/Christ-like ones and there are poor/non-Christ-like. It seems we should have clear marks of what a faithful missionary looks like.

    There’s a romantic appeal that feels good, giving the false notion that something has actually been done when we tell each other “you’re a missionary too. Just as much as Adoniram Judson was. Only your mission field in at Kinkos!” Uh…I don’t think so.

    However, each of us has a mission field in our culture and we need to study, engage, challenge it and the people of it with the same fervency of a cross cultural missionary. If we don’t we’re still missionaries, just not very good ones. I think if Xns in their home culture lived out the same principles of cross-cultural missionaries (rather than just wearing the name tag) then we’d be sacrificing more, perhaps persecuted more, but most certainly advancing the great commission more.

    I want to be a missionary.

  6. November 1, 2007 7:19 pm

    Good to see early on you talk about the impacts of globalisation etc. One of the challenges is taking account of how the world is changing.

    However, would it be possible to broaden the concept of culture? In this fast-changing fragmented world it would seem to be as much of a cross-cultural experience for a 16 year old to talk to an 80 year old in their own church as it is to talk to an Asian immigrant of the same age at school.

    The danger in the narrow concept of mission is that it is stuck in a previous age and not relevant to today.

    There certainly does seem to be an idea of being ‘sent’ within the biblical concept of ‘mission’. There is also an aspect of leaving one’s comfort zone. The question for me is what does that look like today within yours and my context?

    For some that may well be going to a foreign land … what does it mean for the rest?

  7. November 1, 2007 7:44 pm

    Agreed, Andrew. And I think the application of missional theology in the U.S. is following along these lines. Many of the new evangelical churches being planted in the U.S. are mobilizing disciples to be missionaries in their own contexts, sub-cultures and neighborhoods.

    I agree there is a biblical emphasis on being sent, but there is also a discipleship/incarnational imperative for being missional in our own locale.

    We are trying to develop a missional community that invests in teh city and our neighborhoods, while keeping the larger global mission of the church in view.


  1. A Book and a Break « Church Planting Novice
  2. Should Missionaries Recieve Special Attention? « Church Planting Novice

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